As he prepared to start in the U.S. Men’s National Team’s decisive World Cup Qualifying match on Sept. 3, 2005, veteran midfielder Steve Ralston approached the game like he would any other.
With a chance to clinch a berth at the 2006 FIFA World Cup against rivals Mexico, the size of the occasion only hit the 31-year-old as the team bus turned the final corner into Columbus Crew Stadium.
“Wow, this is big,” Ralston recalled saying to himself as the bus rode through a large sea of red, white and blue into the stadium. “There were so many people there so early. Hours before the game, people on both sides were out in numbers. To see the American support was tremendous. It always felt good, but more so for this game.”
It was quite a scene for a player whose earlier career wouldn’t predict he would be any more than a spectator at the match. A native of soccer-mad St. Louis, Ralston was a spot starter for Oakville High School and barely cracked the first XI during his freshman year at Forest Park Community College. Not a bad player, but also not one you’d pick out as a future National Team contributor.
A successful transfer to Florida International University in 1993 changed things, leading to the right-sided attacker becoming a prime prospect for Major League Soccer’s inaugural season in 1996. With an uncanny ability to serve a ball from the right and pop up at opportune moments, Ralston carved out a fine career with the Tampa Bay Mutiny and New England Revolution in the league’s nascent years. His early play earned him sporadic call-ups to the MNT under both Steve Sampson and later Bruce Arena, but he only received a regular role in the side six years after his initial debut.
MNT midfielder Steve Ralston celebrates DaMarcus Beasley's goal vs. Mexico that gave the USA a 2-0 win in World Cup Qualifying on Sept. 3, 2005.
Coming off a strong season with the Revolution in 2004, Ralston enjoyed an extended run with the MNT in 2005, as his ability on the right side allowed Arena to push Landon Donovan further up the field in an attacking midfield or withdrawn forward role. Having helped the USA to its third Gold Cup title earlier that summer, Ralston actually tied Donovan for most appearances with 15 that year.
“I hadn’t played a whole lot of qualifiers previous to that year, maybe one or two,” said Ralston, who appeared in eight final round World Cup qualifiers that year. “I’d been around the National Team for a number of years, but I never really had the opportunity to play in the big games, so for me, being included against Mexico was a great thing to be a part of.”
A scoreless first half was best-remembered for some of the physical altercations between USA defender Oguchi Onyewu and Mexico forward Jared Borgetti.
Coming out of the locker room at the break, Ralston said he remembered how much the U.S. worked on set pieces in the week leading up to the match. With dead-ball servers Eddie Lewis, Claudio Reyna and Donovan all on the field, his role on the night was to find space in the box when those opportunities presented themselves.
All the practice paid off in the 53rd minute.
Lewis swung in a left-footed free kick that Onyewu rose above Mexico defender Francisco Rodriguez to head off the left post. As the ball then careened toward the middle of the goal mouth, it set-up perfectly for Ralston to head home from close range.
“Obviously I’m not a huge target, but I could be active in the box and try to find some room on second balls,” he said about his fourth and final international goal. “I just happened to be in the right place at the right time. It came off the post and came right to me and if I would have missed that one, it would have been pretty embarrassing. It was probably one of the easiest goals I’ve ever scored, but definitely the most important.”
The finish re-sparked the pro-U.S. crowd and opened the door for DaMarcus Beasley to make it 2-0 on a well-played set piece five minutes later. Playing a short corner on the right, Donovan pushed the ball back for Reyna as Beasley bolted towards the area. Recognizing the run, the U.S. captain quickly slid the ball through for Beasley, who measured a lethal effort inside the top left corner.
While Ralston admitted Beasley’s finish was top-class, he says he still gives his former teammate grief for being so selfish on the strike.
“If you look at the replay, I’m wide open on Beaz’s left. If he would have passed it to me, I would have had two that day. Of course he has to shoot, score and steal all the glory,” he joked.
Though he played a significant role in getting the side to Germany, Ralston’s dreams of playing at the World Cup sputtered the in the build-up the following year.
Picking up a quad ailment during January camp, he only returned to take part in the MNT’s last friendly before the final roster announcement, a 1-1 draw with Jamaica in April. With one last chance to impress, the midfielder again tweaked his quad during the match, effectively ending his hopes of a spot on the final 23-man roster, though he was named as one of 13 alternates.
“Being in the locker room after the game, I knew right then. I thought to myself, ‘There goes that.’ It was hard…I was gutted.”
In that moment, Ralston vividly thought back to Arena being asked about the final World Cup roster following the MNT’s 2-0 win against Mexico the previous September.
“I remember Bruce saying, ‘You never know what’s going to happen with a roster of players that come in and out’ and that’s what happened. Not just to me, but others. Players find form, injuries occur, and I ended up being an alternate. That’s just how it went.”
Despite missing out on the World Cup, Ralston, now an assistant to Dominic Kinnear with the San Jose Earthquakes, takes pride in the contributions he made to the MNT over the years, specifically that game-winner on a memorable night in Columbus.
“To qualify against your biggest rival at home was special,” he said. “For me to be playing with the National Team, to help score a goal against your big rival and qualify for the World Cup, was a really big high.”
By virtue of their 2-0 win vs. Mexico during Qualifying in 2005, Ralston and the USA qualified for the 2006 FIFA World Cup in Germany.